Archaeologists have found eggs belonging to a parasite that plagues modern humans on a series of naturally preserved African mummies. Eggs were found on the mummies as early as the 1920’s but only now have scientists been able to prove that the mummies were infected with Schistosoma mansoni. What is exciting about this discovery is that it proves that the parasite is not just a product of modern urbanization.
The parasites cause a disease known as schistosomiasis. The disease is not usually a lethal one but it can cause lingering health problems including anemia, impaired growth and impaired cognitive development. It can also cause damage to internal organs as well. It can be more serious in children but even in adults it makes day to day living much more difficult.
It is believed that approximately 200 million people are currently affected by schistosomiasis. It is most common in agricultural regions that rely on irrigation channels to keep crops hydrated. Because it tends to thrive in developed areas it was believed that the parasite was actually a product of modern urbanization.
This belief has been challenged by the Nubian mummies. Originally, scientists had thought that a close relative of S. mansoni had left the parasite eggs on the mummies. The eggs were originally thought to be those of S. haematobium. This parasite causes many of the same symptoms but is found in regions other than those with irrigation channels.
Now scientists have been able to determine that the Wadi Halfa were most affected by this parasite. The Wadi Halfa created farms alongside the Nile River approximately 1500 years ago. They utilized irrigation channels in order to keep their crops hydrated. Up to twenty-five percent of the Wadi Halfa were believed to have been infected by schistosomiasis.
The findings are also important because they point to the fact that the Wadi Halfa may have also used irrigation channels. Previously, it was believed that they were not sophisticated enough to have utilized this farming technique. Scientists had previously believed that the Wadi Halfa were reliant on nature in order to plant their crops and keep them irrigated.
Scientists tested skin found on some of the naturally mummified bodies that were unearthed in Egypt. Because the skin was dry and mummified it was possible to test it for various proteins. When scientists tested the skin of African mummies they found proteins that belonged to S. mansoni and not S. haematobium.
The snail that transmits this disease is found mainly in irrigation channels near civilized areas. It prefers standing water that may have higher levels of contaminants and additives in it. It’s relative, S. haematobium is also transmitted via snail but in this case, the snails prefer water that is moving, clean, and well oxygenated.
The discovery was only possible because the mummies had been buried. The environment in the area where they were buried not only preserved the external skin but the internal organs as well. This is different than man-made mummies which may have had the internal organs removed.